In August 1989, millions of individuals across the Soviet-ruled Baltic States, including nearly a million Lithuanians, joined hands to form the world’s longest human chain. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the infamous pact between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany that sealed their fate. These were tiny, powerless countries that neighboring bullies felt free to do with as they saw fit, while other countries looked the other way.
1989’s “Baltic Way”, as the human chain was called, was a test of their resolve and a demonstration to the world on an unprecedented scale of the values to which they aspired. It was also a reminder of the brutality and illegitimacy of occupations that had deprived them of their best and brightest, and set them back decades in terms of both human and economic development – an example of the devastation of an appeasement policy.
As Lithuania prepares to mark the 30th anniversary of that remarkable demonstration, more demonstrations are planned. Some will commemorate the strength and determination that led people to join hands for freedom back in 1989, and will show how far these countries have come. Others, however, will show how a vocal and aggressive minority has found a way to dominate national discourse, bullying anyone who dares to question their illiberal narrative that idolizes “nation” at the expense of individual freedom and human dignity. And they will test Lithuania once again.
The agenda of these bullies is fundamentally inimical to the values represented by the Baltic Way and the values to which Lithuania aspired by joining the European Union, the Council of Europe, and other Western organizations. Their agenda represents a view of society that most of the rest of Europe has been striving to rid itself of since the end of World War II. Their modus operandi is to tar as an “Enemy of the State” and an “Agent of the Kremlin” anyone who dares question the hero status of Nazi collaborators like Kazys Skirpa, who headed an armed anti-Semitic resistance group that called for a Lithuania free of Jews and briefly ran the country during the Nazi occupation as Jews were being looted, imprisoned, and slaughtered by local Lithuanians.
With the tacit support of certain politicians and public servants, these bullies intimidate critics with threats of criminal investigations, and, if at all possible, get them fired from their jobs. What drives their thinking is the same illiberal and collectivistic notion that made Nazi and Soviet ideologies so violent and reprehensible: that individual lives don’t matter and crimes against humanity are excusable as long as you do it for a good cause (theirs).
Unfortunately, Lithuania’s political elite, in trying to keep these bullies placated, has allowed them to insinuate themselves into, and even capture certain public institutions, most notably, the Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Center. The Center does its utmost to excuse Nazi collaborators through a combination of cherry-picking and dissembling. Its head, Terese Burauskaite, has publicly called for a criminal investigation into my personal efforts to research and present historical evidence of the crimes of Nazi collaborators who have achieved hero status in Lithuania.
It should not be surprising that the recent decision by the Vilnius City Council to rename Skirpa Street and take down a memorial plaque to another Nazi collaborator, Jonas Noreika, has enraged these people. For them, the decision represents the triumph of what pro-Kremlin trolls like to call “Gayropa” (a play on the pronunciation of “Europe” in Russian): a supposed conspiracy by gays, Jews and others to destroy national identity and family values (as illustrated by the invitation to today’s demonstration against the removal of honors for Skirpa and Noreika in Vilnius below). Ironically, in this, they are far more in tune with the Kremlin, which promotes this sort of conspiratorial thinking throughout Europe, than are those they wish to tar with the pro-Kremlin brush.
Whether today’s demonstration represents the final convulsions of a dying breed or the beginnings of their resurgence will be a critical test for Lithuania to pass. It will show whether Lithuania has what it takes to be a modern European country, whether it understands that this assumes respect for the fundamental rights and dignity of the individual, and precludes making excuses for crimes against humanity done in the name of some “greater good”.
Thus far, the City Council and the Mayor are standing firm, promising to take down even more monuments if they idolize people who committed crimes against humanity, participated in the persecution of others, or violated individual dignity and freedom. On the other side, what is shocking and surprising is to witness the likes of Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, who spearheaded Lithuania’s independence movement, taking the side of the bullies together with other members of the party he founded, the Conservative Homeland Union. They are calling for the honors to be restored. In a classic example of “blame the victim” that shows the extent of Conservative kowtowing to the bullies, Landsbergis has even gone on record saying it is the Mayor and City Council that are stoking anti-Semitism by removing honors from Skirpa and Noreika, and suggesting that Lithuania’s Jewish Community was making decisions “useful to the Kremlin”.
Newly-elected President Gitanas Nauseda, who ran on a conciliatory platform and defeated the Conservative’s preferred candidate, appears to have been caught flat-footed by the furor surrounding the Vilnius City Council decision. For now he is doing his best to straddle the fence, pleading for a “moratorium” on such divisive decisions pending further investigation and adding that such decisions should not be made by politicians. It took the Mayor to point out in an open letter to the President that two decades of research by respected institutions such as the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania should be sufficient to decide whether such honors are warranted. Even Conservative historian and Member of Parliament Arvydas Anusauskas (Homeland Union) has admitted, when pushed, that he would not consider Skirpa and Noreika to be heroes, though he is now toeing the party line and criticizing the City’s decision right along with Landsbergis.
The silence of the rest of Lithuania’s political elite is deafening – a fact pointed out by Faina Kukliansky in a letter announcing the closure of the synagogue in Vilnius due to escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric, threats of violence, and lack of an official response in the wake of the City’s decisions. And what are Lithuania’s politicians so afraid of? Do they think that idolization of Nazi collaborators like Skirpa and Noreika is so widespread among the general public that they must fear for their political lives? Is it, as some commentators suggest, a reluctance among politicians who may be seen to have collaborated with authorities during the Soviet period to judge others who collaborated, whether with Nazis or Soviets? It’s an argument the bullies have been known to use, as well. “What gives you, a collaborator, the moral authority to judge someone else who collaborated?” (“We had no choice” is the typical, though dishonest response.) Or is it a simple fear of being called “unpatriotic” by a loud minority that has appointed itself sole judge and jury of who is, and who is not a loyal Lithuanian?
Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: if good people who see what’s going on do not speak out, the bullies will do a great deal of damage before all of this is over – just as they always do when leaders are too scared or foolish to lead, and ordinary people turn their heads.
Arguments about Skirpa are not just about a fading past. The Skirpa test is a test of whether Lithuania is able to acknowledge truth, respect fundamental values, and move forward into the community of modern nations.
On the anniversary of the Baltic Way, will Lithuanians join hands, as they once did, and tell the bullies that their time is over? That what Lithuanians stood for in 1989 and what Lithuania stands for today is individual dignity and the freedom to tell the truth and face it unflinchingly? And that it will no longer be intimidated by self-appointed judges of other people’s loyalty?